Karen Rifas has her way with leaves
Karen Rifas has her way with leaves

Off the Ground

"Levity & Gravity" is the latest exhibition at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. It's an extensive show with works from artists Ricci Albenda, Max Goldfarb, Jennifer Monick, and Peter Sarkisian, and Miami artists Robert Chambers, Karen Rifas, Eugenia Vargas, and Wendy Wischer. Curated by Amy Cappellazzo and Tiffany Huot, the show explores a range of artistic media, from video to photography.

Conceptually speaking Wendy Wischer turns the night sky upside down in To Enlighten. Illuminated from above, the installation of crystal balls follows a spiral shape; each ball reflects light downward, creating a stellar arrangement against the grayish floor. Next to it is Max Goldfarb's Manufacturer Territories. The video, shot from a roof or window above, shows a road worker dressed in jeans, an orange vest, and a blue helmet as he outlines (with the machinery used to draw lines on roads) geometric designs on different street intersections in an industrial area that could be Anytown, U.S.A. The designs follow their own geometric logic, prompting odd reactions from passing pedestrians.

Hands resting on a table is a familiar image, but seldom are they so happily detached from their respective limbs as in Peter Sarkisian's Hands at a Table. His video, which has been edited six times, grabs the viewer's attention with an ingenious hand routine. We watch one large pair of hands and five smaller pairs “dance” above the table. The result is handmade choreography with sound, where each pair of hands proceeds nimbly to sweep, tap, knock, and scratch on the table's surface. Jennifer Monick achieves a consistent theme in three of her distinct photographs (out of five showing). Moods vary from the heavy, as in Shallow Well (a big, manmade hole in beach sand), to the mundane, as in the random potholes pockmarking a road in Path, to the subtle, as in threads of grass that rise from coarse grayish sand in Soft Compass.


"Levity 305-572-2700.

Eugenia Vargas's four large, out-of-focus photographs tell a story while alluding to self-portraiture. Anatomía de la Memoria, for instance, features blurred eyes and a mouth set against a fuzzy, cropped, greenish mass of hair. Right Angle is Karen Rifas's 24-mirror installation that explores the ambiguous, narcissistic point of view of the observer as he or she follows a semielliptical arrangement -- 12 mirrors are mounted on the wall, 12 on the floor -- with two lines of thin tape crisscrossed on each mirror surface, further distorting the image.

A Flymo is a lawnmower that needs no wheels, floats on a cushion of air, and is able to move in any direction. Robert Chambers places this painted-orange device on top of a rectangular, Oriental-looking rug. At regular intervals Flymo (Chambers kept the brand name to title his piece) goes on and off, making the rug flutter. Chambers's juxtaposition of the technological and the primitive has a political tone: With such burdensome cargo, the magic carpet cannot fly. Finally there are Ricci Albenda's two fun-to-look-at, silk-screened logos: Yellow is printed in black against the white wall (a nice touch next to Vargas's yellowish portraits); Ocean is printed on a column. Gallery owner Steinbaum says both silk-screened words are detachable.

For unity's sake it might have been preferable to see a closer tie between the work and the overall theme of levity and gravity. Some pieces didn't seem to fit. And in fact cohesion may have been the curators' concern when they separated Rifas's two works and one of Monick's photos from the set. In general it's probably best, for consistency's sake, to show less than more. That criticism aside, “Levity & Gravity” is an interesting show with original ideas.

The Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, which operated for many years in New York, opened last February with “Latino and Beyond,” a show featuring Amalia Mesa-Bains and Pepon Osorio. Steinbaum herself is a spirited veteran of the New York art scene, where she ran the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in the Nineties. Particularly striking here is the gallery's second level, an orderly mix of living quarters, a well-equipped library of Steinbaum's artists, and showroom. “My work is not exclusively about sales,” Steinbaum says with a mix of tact and resolution as she pulls out a big file of one of her artists. “This is a place for community exchange.” The showroom contains, among others, sculptures by Beverly Buchanan, a violet velvet couch by Pepon Osorio, a large New York Times collage by Tom Nakashima, iconic self-appropriations by Ken Aptekar, and a huge, alien green card by Hung Liu.

In Steinbaum's office, where an imposing Miriam Shapiro painting hangs to the right of the door, she attempts to explain why she left Manhattan for Miami. “SoHo became gentrified,” having traded its bohemian flavor for a more corporate one. “Also, I liked Miami and hated Chelsea.” It's been five months since she opened, but for Steinbaum it's enough time to assess the art climate in Miami. She moved despite the “bad rap,” as she puts it, Miami has in many places as an exclusive market for Cuban and Latin-American art. “I invite collectors from Venezuela, Colombia, and other countries to consider my artists. I also hope Cuban Americans begin to purchase art other than Cuban or Latin American.” Steinbaum seems puzzled by the rap and the reality. “Art is not ethnic ... it's universal,” she says. And yet in spite of this declaration, she sells ethnic art and is proud of it. “We may go by labels,” Steinbaum concedes, “but quality speaks higher than formulas, and I am very proud of my artists.” She has good reasons; when she moved, her entire roster of artists left New York to follow her to Miami.

Because of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery's reputation, most of her sales go to museums. “They keep me alive, and [they] own most of my artists,” she notes with a smile. She's now turning her active artistic energy on the next Basel Art Fair, which has chosen Miami for the year 2002. She invites artists, curators, museum directors, and critics to discuss this upcoming event at her gallery on Monday, July 31, at 6:00 p.m.


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